Monday, October 20, 2014

Barbarians At The Gate

I set a goal to post once a week.  This space isn't meant to provide updates on a day-by-day or game-by-game basis.  There are plenty of good sites for that.  This blog is more about my personal experiences as I root for (what I feel will be) the best team the New York Islanders have fielded in over a decade.

What became apparent since last Tuesday's (sweet) victory over the New York Rangers, was that this team will have an unprecedented ability to toy with my emotions, even over the course of only a week.  This is not insignificant, mind you, because for the last 20 years toying with my emotions seemed to be a conscious pastime of anyone in an Islander uniform.  So how did this team surpass all those other miserably masochistic squads of years past so quickly?  By giving me one of the best October games I've seen in a while followed by a game so terrible, I'm pretty sure I saw Kirk Muller pouting in the corner, refusing to take his next shift.

Had I written this post Friday or Saturday (before the Game-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named), it would've gone something like this:

"They're playing a good Sharks team, were down a goal going into the 3rd and took the lead?"

"They had to go to overtime and a shootout, but the Islanders have John Tavares so..."

"And it was sellout-crowd loud, even without the sellout part."

Inevitably the post would sign off with something about puppies & rainbows and where to drop off my first-born because I'm going to have a debt to repay.  The Islanders were undefeated and just beat one of the more consistently good regular season teams (who were also undefeated).  The reactions were (once again) causing my refresh button to burst into flames.  My younger brother (a Ranger fan - maybe I'll explain that one day), was moved enough to text me a simple question, "This is happening this year, isn't it?"

Oh yeah.  I think it is.

I was so elated that two days later, I kinda enjoyed standing around a 6-year old's birthday party with my son's friends.  As all parents know, those things are painfully, excruciatingly boring.  Any parent who says otherwise is on Xanex.  You have to listen to other parents put their best Facebook faces on.  You have to deflect your kid's requests for soda without sounding pretentious.  Rules about finishing your meal before getting desert get treated like Middle East cease fires.  However, there I was, smiling and talking to other humans like happy people do.  The other party parents thank you, Jaroslav Halak.

After the party, however, came the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I've said this to my brother and other Ranger fans before - I think I might hate the Penguins and their fans a bit more than the Rangers.  I know, I know.  That's sacrilege coming from an Isles fan.  But at the core of it all, Ranger fans have dealt with their fair share of heartache and discontent.  Granted they usually have a good enough team to make the playoffs and provide some exciting moments, but they also lose plenty.  Losing in the playoffs hurts.  More so when expectations are high, something the Rangers have had (off and on) for the last decade or more.  So there's some sympathy there.

The Penguins have an entire swath of fans who have only seen the new glory days.  Fans who had no emotional investment in the terrible teams of the early 2000s.  Fans such as that bring a sense of entitlement to the otherwise fun fan-on-fan ribbing.  I realize that Penguins fans are not alone.  Perennially great teams in any sport have their fair share of bandwagoners.  Maybe in a few years, when the Penguins roster is comprised of a mid-30s Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin's sewn-together prosthetic body, the corpse of Marc-Andre Fleury and a bunch of B-level prospects born from a decade of terrible draft positioning, I'll stop feeling this way about them.  Until then, I'll have to deal with it.

So when the Isles rolled into Pittsburgh Saturday night as the big, bad unbeaten team, I was in full fan-troll deflector gear.  Armed with years of experience and the NHL standings taped to my shield.  After the Isles scored first and were given a 5-3 power play (for nearly a minute and a half), I was ready to fire away on the army of Pens fans.  Then...they broke a sacred hockey god rule.

They failed to score on a long 5-on-3 power play and then gave the opposing team their own 5-on-3.  I'd have to look up the percentages, but I think historically the team who successfully defends a two-man disadvantage followed by getting their own 2-man advantage has scored roughly 711% of the time.  Of course, the Penguins did score (twice, naturally) and the rest is history.  Ugly, ugly history.  The Islanders played an awful game.  The analytics (of which I'm doing my best to learn and use) said it wasn't a really awful game, but optically it was a tire fire.  There was little flow to the Islanders possessions and when they weren't making bad passes forward, they were dropping worse ones behind them.  Before the game, whomever is in charge of advanced stats for the team must've given the players a lesson in carry-in numbers because every player decided he was going to try to skate in with the puck, regardless of how many Penguin players were waiting at the blue line.  By the 3rd period, I was wondering if the NHL had added a rule outlawing dump-ins.  Garik16, who is a great advanced stats guy to follow for Islander fans, kind of noticed too:

It was infuriating. It was also a lot like many other games I've sat through over that last few seasons.  For a little while after the end of the game, it felt just like all those Islander losses of the past.  Hope was tarnished.  Reality seeping in.  Knocking at the gates of Fort Hope were the barbarians of worry.  Armed with catapults of fear and battering rams of anxiety.  And yes, it was so bad that my brain was only able to speak in middle-ages analogies.

But by the morning, I was better.  Because this team, I keep telling myself, is different.  Every team has bad games.  Hell, the Chicago Blackhawks just lost to Calgary in a game the Flames had nooooooooo business being in (take note of the shot totals).  So, it happens.  The difference is good teams bounce back and this will be the Islander's first chance to show that they can do that.  Their next game is against a maddeningly inconsistent (just ask their fans) Toronto Maple Leafs team at home.  They have a good chance to win and right the ship (even if it was only slightly skewed off course by the loss).  I had returned to a warm cocoon of optimism by Sunday breakfast.  Such is the difference so far between this team and those of the past.


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